Flash Entertainment, the promoter responsible for bringing Justin Timberlake, Shakira and Beyonce to Abu Dhabi, is planning to double in size by next March as it extends its events reach. The growth comes in response to new contracts landed by company, which has begun to diversify its offering beyond international pop megastars to include edgier bands such as The Killers, as well as more family and sports-related fare, said John Lickrish, the company's managing director.
"We started out last October with four employees and now we're up to 20," Mr Lickrish said. "With another contract that has just come in that was worth another 10 employees, we will be about 40 people by March of next year." Flash was founded two years ago by the Abu Dhabi Government's Executive Affairs Authority with the dual mandates of putting Abu Dhabi on the global entertainment map and creating a permanent premium events production industry in the capital.
"Our mission was to create a profitable company that can exist in this industry," Mr Lickrish said. "Abu Dhabi is expanding. It wants to be the cultural capital of the Middle East and it wants to be known for premium services." Building that reputation has not been easy. But the shock of hearing that artists such as Sir Elton John and Bon Jovi were playing in Abu Dhabi had worn off a year ago and artists began approaching Flash for a chance to perform in a region most had never played before, Mr Lickrish said.
Each major artist who says "yes" has made it easier to attract the next one. Take the company's latest coup: signing the pop star Rihanna to give a New Year's Eve concert at Emirates Palace. "I've known Rihanna has a new album coming out this month and we were looking for a New Year's event," Mr Lickrish said. "I know her production director, who worked for Madonna. He knows us and has been out here for [the rock group] Coldplay and he thought all the elements were right."
Mr Lickrish would not comment on the amount Rihanna was paid for the concert. The China Daily reported last week that the figure was US$500,000 (Dh1.83 billion). Even with the large fees that megastars can charge, Flash has managed to remain profitable through ticket sales and sponsorship, Mr Lickrish said. Its major sponsors, Mubadala Development, Aldar Properties and Etihad Airways, are all arms of the Abu Dhabi Government, which benefit from a boost in tourism and the raising of the capital's international profile.
Flash wants to widen its pool of sponsors, possibly though family-focused events such as Wakestock, the European wakeboard music festival, which could create sponsorship opportunities for a range of smaller private businesses. "We are looking to diversity," Mr Lickrish said. "What we'd like to do in the future is more niche market like Wakestock with the private sector." It is also trying to keep costs down by re-using the custom-made outdoor sites that it typically builds for each event.
"We build a site from scratch, so the best event that we did for us was Coldplay and [Andrea] Bocelli, because we could amortise the cost over two events," Mr Lickrish said. "We are trying to continue that in December with The Killers and Rihanna to reduce transportation costs and save money on infrastructure." Noting Mubadala's recently announced plans to build a stadium in the capital, Mr Lickrish said an expansion of permanent infrastructure would certainly help the events industry in the long run.
In the short term, the special atmosphere that outdoor events such as this month's dance music concert Creamfields can create is a unique selling point for Abu Dhabi, particularly during months when it is too cold to hold them in Europe. "It's expensive [to build sites from scratch] but they do it all the time in the UK, at the Reading Festivals or Creamfields," Mr Lickrish said. "It is possible. "The problem is that it is a new industry here and you have a lot of high costs. It would be advantageous for us to have a stadium, but at the same time we have great, great venues to use, as far as outdoors, and the weather is fantastic."